The Human Library

On January 14th, I had the pleasure of attending an event at Emily Carr P.S., in London, Ontario. The event was called the Human Library, and it was hosted by Teacher/Librarian Terence Kernaghan. Recently, I interviewed Terence, and this is what he had to say about The Human Library.

Which age groups and subjects participate in the Human Library?

The first Human Library (a joint venture with Greg Marshall) was created for a Grade Eight audience. After considering the needs of my school community, we chose individuals whose backgrounds reflected social justice topics and contemporary issues. We wanted IMG_0357students to interrogate their prejudices by speaking with individuals who are often ‘the described’. While the topics covered may be seen as rather progressive,
students appreciate the approach, and consider it highly relevant to their lives. This project integrates Language, Art, and Health curricula. The second event was the Social Studies: Community Helpers Human Library (as requested by my colleagues). After that, Grade Twos had their own event with Social Studies: World Cultures–Traditions and Celebrations. The most important aspect of the program is the small group (4-5 students maximum) rotation atmosphere. To my knowledge, the only other Human Library in TVDSB was created by Amie Donais at Jack Chambers.

How do you make the initial connections with the “books”?

After deciding on topics, cold calls to community agencies, and a barrage of emails follow. Recipients are intrigued by the idea of a Human Library by the name alone. Colleagues and associates are also an invaluable resource, frequently knowing individuals whose stories of strength, perseverance, and courage invite the admiration of students and educators alike.

What do you do in terms of pre-teaching and post-teaching?

Within the classroom, students investigate and discuss prejudice and stereotypes prior to the event. A week before the Human Library, students consider their Self and choose a IMG_0356representative image and provide an explanatory piece of writing. Directly before the event, students hear about the program and learn what to expect. After booking speakers, each is asked to provide a simple biography (or book jacket) for classes to preview and discuss. Students thus begin to formulate questions and become familiar with the types of messages they will hear. In preparation for the learning after the event, students are reminded to think about making connections between themselves and the “books”, as well as thinking about how they would have handled situations and events heard in the stories. After the event, classes discuss and dissect the messages heard, a decompressionIMG_0372 session, as it were. Students then investigate the dichotomy of image and inner character in a moderated activity, culminating in a writing activity, finishing the statement, “If you really knew me…”. Writing submissions were gathered without identifying name as the most important aspect of this activity is to understand yourself, not to make personal declarations or announce your deepest, darkest secret. Most importantly, students learn from this activity that anxiety, feelings of loneliness or difference are not exclusive to them.

What are some of the ways your students have provided feedback from the event?

Directly after the event, my principal Kelly McCormick had the brilliant idea of capturing student impressions on a Graffiti Wall.  Despite the typically quick nature of this activity, students were thoughtful, reflective, and wrote rather profound messages.  Students also IMG_0367shared their reflections on a moderated Padlet message board. They wrote a message to each of the “books” they visited, as well as the one they wished to have met. One comment I always hear is that students wished they could’ve visited all the “books”, but you always want to leave them wanting more. In this manner, students speak with one another and compare messages, thus reinforcing human connections.

How do the “books” feel about the Human Library experience?

After pouring out their hearts and souls to young strangers, the “books” feel invigoratedIMG_0366 and most certainly exhausted. While this activity would be enough to deliver one time, they repeat their story a few times before the event is over. Students visit in small groups, though, so it’s not as harrowing as staring down an auditorium of faces. Small groups emphasize the human element, i.e., making students responsible for their learning by placing them in authentic, human situations. For the “books”, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if and how your message has been ‘heard’. After students create their Padlet comments, the link is shared with the “books” who can also respond. Padlet not only allows quiet or reserved students the opportunity to share their thoughts but also acts as feedback for the “books”.  

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